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Pakistan: U.S. Program Seeks To Reform Madrasahs

  • Andrew Tully

(AFP) WASHINGTON, February 6, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- A major irritant in relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan has been the charge that many of Pakistan's Muslim religious schools, madrasahs, teach intolerance and help recruit young men to the Taliban, which has become a resurgent threat in Afghanistan.


Madrasahs also have been blamed for making Al-Qaeda attractive to young Pakistanis. A U.S. think tank has been involved in an initiative to foster understanding between these schools and the West. On February 5, Douglas Johnston, the president and founder of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy (ICRD), brought two Pakistani Muslim leaders to Washington to take part in a panel discussion of madrasah reform.


Johnston said he and his colleagues decided nearly four years ago that it was time to address the issue of the Pakistani madrasahs.


Beyond Rote Learning


The ICRD is working to persuade the madrasahs to expand their curriculums beyond religious subjects to include disciplines such as mathematics and social studies and to move beyond rote learning of the Koran to exercises in critical thinking. Another goal is to promote conflict resolution through religious tolerance.

"We appealed to their own heritage, pointing out how many pioneering breakthroughs in the arts and sciences -- even religious tolerance -- took place under Islam 1,000 years ago," Johnston said. "And when they start listening to that and thinking about it -- you hear it enough times, all of a sudden you walk a little taller and think, 'Hey, maybe we can do better.'"

Johnston says starting the program was difficult because the administrators of many madrasahs felt changing curriculums might mean compromising their religious principles. But he said he and his colleagues took vital steps to win their trust.


First, Johnson said, the madrasah administrators themselves were given responsibility for making the changes. That way they didn't feel as if anything was being imposed on them or their students. He says the second step was to make the changes in a historical context.


"We appealed to their own heritage, pointing out how many pioneering breakthroughs in the arts and sciences -- even religious tolerance -- took place under Islam 1,000 years ago," Johnston said. "And when they start listening to that and thinking about it -- you hear it enough times, all of a sudden you walk a little taller and think, 'Hey, maybe we can do better.'"


'Winning Hearts And Minds'


Johnson said his group soon attracted madrasah leaders even from the Wahhabi and Deobandi movements, two conservative movements in Islam. Eventually, he said, not only was the ICRD team teaching madrasah leaders, but some madrasah leaders were beginning to teach their colleagues.


"What I would call all of this is the 'winning the hearts and minds' phase," Johnston said. "And once we get a critical mass on that, which won't be very long from now, we're going to have to come up with the kind of resources that are needed -- significant resources -- to provide textbooks in the new disciplines in Urdu, and to provide teachers in those disciplines as well."


Two of the Pakistani Muslim leaders in the ICRD program -- Hafiz Khalil Ahmed of a Deobandi school in Quetta and Qazi Abdul Qadir Khamush, a Wahabbi leader -- accompanied Johnston to the presentation.


Ahmed said it was important for him to speak out to make sure the world understands that Pakistani madrasahs aren't schools of hatred. According to Ahmed, the students at these institutions are too isolated from international politics to harbor a worldview intolerant of different religions and cultures.


From what little they know of politics, Ahmed said, they believe that if anyone is promoting militancy, it is the government of Pakistan itself.


Khamush agreed. He said there was no talk of jihad, or holy war, until the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. He said most people in Pakistan supported resistance to the Soviets.


But Khamush said that when the Soviets withdrew 10 years later, thought of war ended for most people in the region -- except for those who knew nothing but fighting. He said these men created new groups to protect what they saw as a threatened Islam.


Broader Implications


Khamush said the reforms advocated by Johnston and the ICRD are working well at madrasahs in Pakistan. And Johnston said the initiative could reap benefits far beyond Pakistan.


"Why this is important is not just because it's going to provide a better future for the children of Pakistan, which it is," he said. "But I think all of our children have a stake in this, just because if sort of gets right at the perceived heart of the global war on terrorism."


But Johnston said the initiative can't work in a vacuum. He called for the cooperation of the governments of both Pakistan and the United States to help its chances of success.

Madrasahs And Tolerance

Students at a madrasah in Peshawar, Pakistan (epa file photo)

INSIDE THE MADRASAHS. The role of the traditional Islamic school, or madrasah, is being increasingly discussed. Many in the West and in the Muslim world have criticized some madrasahs for teaching intolerance and even violence...(more)


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